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Highway Superintendent is concerned spring flooding could be worse than ever

Going into the fall and winter months, local lake levels were already at near-record levels. Day County Highway Superintendent Ben Braaten says that means the spring flooding potential may be worse than ever previously experienced.

“We went into the winter wetter than most years. We’re just so saturated. There’s more open water this (winter) than ever before,” he said.

That leaves Braaten concerned. Already, there are multiple county roads under water with many more close to going under – that’s not counting the number of township roads that are in trouble, he said.

In the wake of flooding beginning in 1997 through 2011 and through to last summer even, the county raised multiple roads by several feet to bring them out of the water and make them passable, said Braaten. Now, many of those same roads need to be built back up again. Heavy, late spring snow and a wet summer have brought us to this point, Braaten said.

With over 44 inches of snowfall recorded in Webster alone in 2019 between January and April, coupled with over 26 inches of rain between the months of May and September, Braaten said the county didn’t have a chance to dry up.

“Normally, there’s more snow in the spring but we had more water this summer coming in,” he said. “The water is higher now than it was last spring.”

Typically, he said at least some water will evaporate off the lakes during the summer months. But that wasn’t the case last year. July 2019 saw 7.11 inches of rain and August had another 4.13 inches. September’s 4.70 inches of rainfall and the 3.53 inches of moisture in October did not help the situation.

“There’s just too much water. In a normal year, we could handle it,” Braaten said.

But, as evidenced by the rainfall amounts received last year, it was not a normal year.

Lakes near record levels

The latest lake levels recorded by the South Dakota Department of Energy and Natural Resources showed Opitz Lake and Bitter Lake were at all-time highs when measurements were taken last October. Almost all other lakes were within a fraction of an inch of their records. All lakes were several feet higher than the year before.

Blue Dog Lake, on the north side of Waubay, measured 1,805.2 feet on Oct. 22, 2019. The record for that lake was set in June 2011 at 1,805.8. In October 2018, the lake had measured 1,800.9 feet.

From there, connected by several outlets, the water flows into Rush Lake to the west. Rush Lake measured 1,805.24 in October, up by over four feet from October 25, 2018 when it measured 1,801. The lake’s record was set in June 2011 at 1,805.75.

Normally, both of the aforementioned lakes drain directly into Bitter Lake, which is south of Waubay. Bitter Lake set a new record Oct. 22, 2019 when its level reached 1,803.49 feet. The previous record was set July 17, 2011 at 1,802.98. That same lake had been at 1,800.46 in October 2018, meaning its level has come up over three feet in just a year’s time.

Because there is so much water coming off those two lakes this year, however, Braaten said Rush Lake is currently back-flowing into Waubay Lake to the northeast of Webster. That lake, he said, is currently covering something like 17,000 acres and has combined with multiple bodies of water. The highest level ever recorded for Waubay Lake was 1,805.36 feet July 17, 2011; as of Oct. 22, 2019, the water level was recorded at 1,804.11 at the Swan Lake location, which has equalized with Waubay Lake. The lake was at 1,800.77 Oct. 25, 2018.

Black Slough, on the east side of Grenville and on the northern most edge of Waubay Lake, is not quite equalized with that larger body of water yet. Last October, it measured 1,803.87 feet, up from 1,800.57 in October 2018. It’s record stands at 1,804.46 feet, set May 16, 2011.

Nowhere to go

Once Rush and Blue Dog equal out with Bitter Lake, all the water that is currently backflowing north will need to come back south and end up in Bitter Lake. But there’s a level of concern there too, Braaten said. In the fall, Braaten pointed out there was only a foot of elevation difference between Waubay and Bitter lakes.

Bitter Lake is the bottom of a closed basin. According to Braaten, the water cannot escape the closed basin until it reaches to a level of 1,810. While Bitter currently covers approximately more than 20,000 acres, Braaten said it’s unknown how many more acres it would consume before reaching that 1,810-foot elevation.

As an example of the problems it could cause, Braaten pointed out that the elevation of the A&W parking lot in Webster is at 1,811. He guesses the intersection of U.S. Hwy. 12 and SD Hwy. 25 is only just higher that level.

“When those (lakes) even out, we’ll be in trouble,” he said. “Eighteen-ten would be really bad.”

It all comes here

Just like the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone, most lakes in this region are connected to one another and that impacts the way the flood waters continue to raise. Lakes from outside of Day County continue to feed into the Day County lakes. Even at a time when the lakes are usually frozen solid, because of the high water levels, Braaten said they continue to flow. According to Braaten, Hurricane Lake in Roberts County to the east is still flowing into Enemy Swim Lake in Day County, which flows into Blue Dog.

Similarly, water from Marshall County in the north continues to flow southward. Opitz Lake, which is on the border between Day County and Marshall County, set a new record Oct. 23, 2019 at a level of 1,794.6 feet, up from the previous record of 1,794.55 set May 17, 2011. A year ago in October, that lake was at a level of 1,791.57 feet.

Braaten said Optiz Lake is fed by a series of lakes out of Marshall County, including Roy Lake which flows down to Kettle Lake and then to Cattail Lake before flowing into Opitz. In October, Roy was at 1,797.48, Kettle was at 1,795.02 and Cattail was at 1,794.94. Both Kettle and Cattail had set new records, up from 1,794.67 in May 2011 for Kettle and up from 1,794.82 that same time for Cattail.

In Day County, Opitz is flowing into Hazelden Lake which has overflowed into Hauge Slough. That last body of water is what is now covering the “Fort Sisseton Road.” The DENR does not record water levels for Hazelden or Hauge.

Roads problems

Looking at all the water level data, Braaten says it will only mean one thing this spring.

He said, “We’re going to have some more flooded roads.”

In September, County Road 17, an oil top road known as the “Fort Sisseton Road,” or 435th Ave., between 125th and 126th Streets was closed by the county with six inches of water over the roadway. Today, it’s under nearly three feet of water.

Braaten said while the state will cover part of the expense of raising that road, the cost of fixing several gravel roads in that area will come wholly out of the county’s budget. There is a chance the county would receive FEMA reimbursement for repairing County Road 2 (a gravel road, also called 126th St.), but Braaten said FEMA funds aren’t guaranteed.

Currently, a section of CR 2 to the east of CR 17 has about 1,800 feet under three feet of water, Braaten said. In that area, he said the road will have to be raised five or six feet. The CR 17 stretch is about 4,000 feet and it will also need to be raised about that much, he said.

To the west of CR 17, Braaten said there’s an approximately six-mile stretch of road being threatened by rising water levels.

Braaten went on to list more than a dozen other locations throughout the county where the roads, both gravel and oil top, are either already under water or that he expects will go under this spring. Many, he said, the county has already invested money in raising previously.

“Township roads are in the same predicament,” he said.

One saving grace, Braaten said, is that the oil top roads are state aid eligible while for the gravel roads, the county has to look towards FEMA, and, said Braaten, “You can’t count on that. That’s a hit and miss deal.”

Braaten said he will seek outside aid for doing road work to any stretch of road that has more than 500 feet under water. Those where less than that is threatened or under, he said the county will attempt to handle on their own. He said this fall they already had four short areas where they did road raises.

“If there’s somebody who’s got to get out, we’ve got to give them a way to get out,” Braaten said.

In addition to flooded roads, Braaten is concerned about soft spots in the roads. He said the ground is so saturated that once the thaw begins this spring, there is potential for a lot of rough areas.

“Any place where water is within a couple foot of the road, it will affect that road,” he said.

Braaten also cautioned people not to drive through any standing water over a road.

“It just needs to quit raining and snowing. We need a dry year,” he concluded.

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